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Flames turn up the heat Add to ...

eduhatschek@globeandmail.com

They tweaked the roster and made a series of astonishing - and deeply felt - roster changes on the fly. But in the end, what's made the Calgary Flames click in recent days is a tried-and-true formula: Jarome Iginla scores and Miikka Kiprusoff stops the puck.

The Flames face the Ottawa Senators tonight, on a modest three-game win streak that has marked a small turnaround in their recent poor play.

Two nights ago, the Flames won what may turnout to be their most significant game of the 2009-10 NHL season, defeating their primary challenger for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Red Wings, in Detroit, by scoring three unanswered third-period goals.

The Flames scored 14 goals in three those games, a comparative outpouring of offence for a team that, prior to that stretch, had fallen to 28th in the NHL in goals for.

For the moment anyway, it seems as if they've put a long bad patch of hockey behind them (during which they won just four of their previous 18 games).

According to winger Curtis Glencross, the urgency finally sunk in. "We realized if we don't pick it up soon, we're going to go home and it'll be a long summer," he said.

Succinctly said. At the moment, it looks as if the final playoff spots in the West will be decided among the Nashville Predators, Flames and Red Wings, barring a major collapse of the six top teams, all of whom are five points or more clear of the cutoff line.

For Calgary, making the playoffs is critical, if only because all its moves in the past month were designed to help the team win in the present. The Flames have no picks until the fourth round at this summer's entry draft and they've spent to the salary cap limit again, as ownership patiently subscribes to the scattershot approach to building employed by general manager Darryl Sutter.

Of course, it helps Iginla and Kiprusoff are there, year after year, to provide the foundation.

Last weekend, Iginla reached the 30-goal plateau for the ninth consecutive year. He is in the midst of one of his more up-and-down seasons, given he has been held off the scoresheet in 26 of 65 games. But he has 15 multiple-point games - and usually, those coincide with a Calgary victory.

"That top line [Iginla, Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan]played well [against Detroit]" head coach Brent Sutter said. "We need that, but we need everyone playing well. As a threesome, they're starting to get a feel for each other and it's working out real good."

Sutter was in a talkative, almost combative mood, yesterday, after it was suggested that Calgary's recent offensive spurt was the result of giving the offence the green light to attack. He argued that perception was a fallacy, saying the team's system has been the same all season, and the only difference is the players are "trusting each other more and having fun. Winning is contagious."

"I never told them not to score goals," Sutter said. "We're being an assertive team now. We're not playing on our heels. We're playing on our toes."

Kiprusoff, meanwhile, finally has a caddy in goal and he is a familiar face - Vesa Toskala, recently run out of Toronto and the punch line for a lot of Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson's press conferences during the Olympics. But Toskala figures to be a better fit in Calgary because he and Kiprusoff played together with the San Jose Sharks back when Sutter was running that team. And, safe to say, Calgary's overall defence is stronger than Toronto's.

"With a goalie like Miikka," Glencross said, "you know he's going to make a big save every night to keep you in there."

Still, the Flames can hardly rest on a week's worth of laurels because the Red Wings show up here next week, and it is hard to imagine Detroit missing the playoffs.

The Flames need to show this isn't just a blip but a legitimate turnaround that will propel them into the playoffs. Otherwise, as Glencross noted, it could be a long summer in these parts.

 

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